I saw two movies last week, one exceptional (Julie Taymor's "Across the Universe") and the other disappointingly so-so (Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs"). Both films speak to the prevalent confusions, moral lapses, corruptions of spirit in the CheneyBush era. And, despite the heavy, at-times depressing material they're dealing with, both are ultimately uplifting in their own unique ways.
In "Across the Universe," Taymor seems to be using the Vietnam War-era and "The Sixties" in general — roughly mid-1960s to mid-1970s — as her surrogate for today's America enmeshed in yet another war and occupation, this one in Iraq. The through-line vehicles for telling this story are the glorious music/lyrics by The Beatles, which is to say mainly by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with a bit of George Harrison.
Her film has a plot, of sorts — about love found and lost and found again — with real characters, but the spine of the film is, as it should be, this stupendous music. (I could hear people around me in the theater quietly humming or joining in occasionally on such numbers as "Hey, Jude," "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," "Revolution," et al.)
Rather than simply use lip-synching to the actual Beatles' recordings, Taymor — the compelling director of Broadway's "The Lion King," and the films "Titus" and "Frida" — lets the actors lend their own styles to the popular songs, within scenarios about what's happening around them and to them as the decade goes from innocence and idealism ("I Want to Hold Your Hand") to chaos and despair ("Helter Skelter").
There is plenty of documentary footage of the anti-war and civil-rights protests, along with in-country footage from 'Nam, but Taymor also re-creates key moments in '60s history that aid her in shaping her unique artist's vision of the period. So skillfully are those re-creations of mood and moment (which include her signature use of puppets and rousing, muscular group-dance movement) that one rarely notices the transitions between those scenes and the documentary footage. She does depart from this in her exceptionally striking, psychedelic cinematography in scenes where her characters are tripping on acid and grass, climaxing with gorgeous underwater ballet shots.
SHIFTING THE PARADIGM
I don't think Taymor is urging today's American youth to re-create the "The Sixties"; after all, there were a hell of a lot of mistakes, many of them deadly, made by the activists and hippies of that era. Rather, what I think she's implicitly saying is that activism in the face of unjust wars and repression can create its own momentum for change. A cultural "tipping point" can be reached that can shift the prevailing social/political paradigm.
Many of us then-youngsters active in the '60s naively believed we were riding the crest of tectonic shifts in history, that social revolution was about to radically transform everything around us if we just pushed a little harder to knock down the pillars holding up "The Establishment." It didn't quite work out that way, but it was our positive oppositional energy that helped fuel the major changes and reforms that did occur in, and immediately following, "The Sixties," some of which still resonate decades later.
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There isn't as much of that hopeful energy among young people today, especially when facing a political system that seems much more out-of-control, repressive, warlike, secretive and nasty than anything Americans faced back then. (Although, we should remember that Vietnam was no walk in the park: more than 58,000 American troops died and perhaps one million Vietnamese troops and another million civilians.)
"Across the Universe," in that sense, is a call not to arms but to opening our minds again to possibility, to hope, to fun, to our creative impulses. Thomas Jefferson certainly believed in the cleansing power of periodic revolutions
("the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time") in order to shake up the system and move society forward toward the making of a "more perfect union" in this country and to peace and justice abroad.
After experiencing "Across the Universe," one leaves the theater uplifted and more positive. Yes, there are heavy, downer moments captured in the film, but the music and lyrics of Lennon and McCartney (and Harrison), and the constant captivating imagery of Taymor, and the mostly non-violent activism shown that resulted in so much change back then, takes you out the other side and almost makes you believe that "all you need is love."
REDFORD'S "LIONS FOR LAMBS" MOVIE
Mass citizen activism and dissent, or the lack thereof, are also at the heart of Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs" movie, but in a much more oblique, controlled, and ultimately disappointing way.
There are three overlapping plot strands to "Lions for Lambs":
1) An ambitious Republican senator (Tom Cruise), aiming to run for President, grants an exclusive interview to a veteran network reporter (Meryl Streep) about the country's new aggressive strategy that will bring a U.S. "victory" in Afghanistan. The plan consists essentially of setting up mountain outposts to draw the Taliban/al Qaida forces out in the open to attack the mini-forts, which would make "the enemy" vulnerable to Predator surveillance and high-tech U.S. bombing/strafing runs. U.S. soldiers as "bait," as it were.
2) A liberal professor (Redford) is chagrined that his best, brightest student (Andrew Garfield) is failing to use his potential to make a difference in the world. He tries to convince the student to abandon his materialistic pursuits and become actively engaged.
3) Two of the professor's former favorite students (Michael Pena, Derek Luke), who joined the Army as their form of activism, are in the first wave of troops carrying out the new tactics in Afghanistan that were discussed by the senator. The situation, as often happens, doesn't unfold the positive way the neo-con theorists dreamed it up in their ivory towers.
It isn't hard to figure out that Redford really is talking about CheneyBush's "surge" strategy in Iraq: The Administration needs something, anything, to spin positively, for its own political purposes. Streep's character keeps trying to get the senator to talk about how the U.S. got itself into such a catastrophic war, but Cruise's senator says that's old, useless history. He refuses to acknowlege that the mistakes made early help explain why U.S. war strategies don't work — old, new, "surge," whatever — especially when there is precious little political reconciliation among the local warring factions.
Redford, like Taymor, is addressing the issue of how citizens can and should use their energies, their brains, their bodies, their idealism, to react to the negativity and repression that buffet them daily.
GOOD INTENTIONS GO AWRY
Strange: Redford is notorious as a liberal icon, and one gets the sense while watching the film that he's reined himself in, to keep his red-hot political views in check. That reticence, and perhaps a desire to reach ordinary middle-class American citizens by lowering the political volume, may be the movie's undoing.
The intent of the film is admirable: to elevate ordinary Americans out of the cesspool of immoral politics that CheneyBush have helped create. But the script by Mathew Michael Carnahan is deficient: long on talk and short on drama. (First rule of script- and play-writing: Show, don't tell).
As a result, the film, as directed by Redford, comes off as a static, muddled but heartfelt civics lecture on the value of getting involved in what you believe in. But who knows? Maybe the elementary civics lesson may actually reach more undecided Americans than if Redford had gone full-out with his political anger.
I'm not sorry that I saw it; the very making of this kind of film — which assumes that audiences have an intellect and like to exercise it — is a testament, however botched, to positive progressive faith.
But I think I'd much rather go watch movie-movies like "Redacted," "Rendition" and "In the Valley of Elah," even though these hard-hitting films amount to preaching to the choir since the American public several years ago came to the conclusion that the Iraq war and occupation were disastrous mistakes and needed to be ended ASAP.
One can hope that all these commercial Hollywood movies, and the large number of anti-war documentaries (for example, the excellent "No End In Sight"), will do the trick of firming up 2008 opposition to CheneyBush and the Republicans (and those Democrats) who enable them. Which suggests that if history repeats itself, an Iraq-war equivalent to the rightwing 'Nam-era film "The Green Berets" should be released any day now.
Bernard Weiner, who reviewed films and plays for the San Francisco Chronicle for 19 years, holds a Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). For comment: crisispaper firstname.lastname@example.org .
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